|No. 68 Chocolate|
The story of cacao and chocolate begins with the early Olmecs who lived in Mesoamerica more than 3000 years ago. The story extends through the 16th-century Spanish conquest and colonization of Central America, when frothy cacao beverages prepared at the court of King Montezuma were served to Cortés and his troops. Chocolate facts and myths are linked with the spread of this beverage into Europe and North America during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Today, in the 21st century, consumers welcome chocolate in a variety of ways, whether as a primary meal item or as a dessert, but always as a delightful pleasure.
Linguistic specialists, among them Martha Macri and her students at the University of California, Davis, have suggested that chocolate-related terms probably originated with the early Olmec civilization, passed to the Mayans, and then to the Mexica/Aztecs. Beans from cacao trees were differentiated by the ancients into two primary types: the term quauhcacahuatl represented the best-quality beans that were used as a form of currency, while the word tlacacahuatl applied to lower-quality beans used to prepare beverages. The English word cacao is derived linguistically from the Nahuatl (Aztec language) words cacahuatl or xoxocatl, generally translated as “a beverage prepared from cacao and water.”
How cacao came to humans
In ancient Mayan texts cacao has a divine origin – it is truly a gift from the gods. Xmucane, one of the creation gods, invented nine beverages, and from these, humans were formed who were able to feed themselves. Of these nine beverages, three were made with cacao and corn. Then came a time when historical events shifted geographically from the Mayan lowlands and southern regions of modern Mexico as new immigrants arrived from the north and poured into the central valley of Mexico. These immigrants, the Toltecs, built the astonishing pyramids located at Teotihuacan. According to Toltec religious texts, the god Quetzalcóatl planted the first earthly cacao tree in a field at the site of Tula to honor good, hard-working humans who lived and toiled there.
The Toltecs, themselves, experienced cultural upheaval in the 14th century as their world was disrupted by the arrival of people known as the Mexica (Aztecs). Mexica warriors subdued the indigenous tribes that had flourished in the valley and constructed their capital, Tenochtitlan, on two islands in Lake Texcoco. By the 16th century, the Aztecs had installed a strong economic, military, and political presence within the valley. Tenochtitlan at this time was an extraordinary architectural achievement, with a population variously estimated by scholars as between 250 –350,000, making the capital one of the largest cities in the world.
The Mexica/Aztecs loved chocolate. More correctly, the Mexica nobility and male soldiers loved chocolate. Cacao/chocolate was not available to all the Mexica and others living in the central valley. It was served as a beverage only to adult males, specifically priests, government officials, military officers, distinguished warriors, and sometimes to the bravest enemy captives before sacrifice. The Mexica held that cacao/chocolate beverages were intoxicating and stimulating and, therefore, not suitable for women and children.
Arrival of the Spanish
Just as the Mexica had replaced the Toltecs, a new invading force changed the culture of the New World. Spanish expeditionary forces arrived on the eastern shore of what is now modern Mexico in 1519, an event that initiated revolutionary regional changes and new chapters in the complex history of chocolate. Hernando Cortés landed near modern Vera Cruz. After burning his ships he led his troops inland toward the Mexica capital where his army was received by King Montezuma (fig. 1). Cortés, himself, and several of his literate officers wrote accounts of their march and documented events of the Mexica conquest. Several passages reflect direct observation of cacao-sellers in Tenochtitlan, while others describe behavior at dinners hosted by Montezuma where chocolate was served:
From time to time the men of Montezuma’s guard brought him, in cups of pure gold, a drink made from the cocoa-plant, which they said he took before visiting his wives. . . I saw them bring in fifty large jugs of chocolate, all frothed up, of which he would drink a little (Bernal Díaz del Castillo: 1560).
This passage by Bernal Díaz is the first documentation in a European language to associate chocolate drinking with sexual activity (but would not be the last). Missing from the earliest Spanish documentation, however, is any suggestion that chocolate was consumed both as a food and as a medicine – two roles that ultimately dominated later European descriptions of this interesting food.
Medical uses of chocolate in Mexica texts
While the earliest Spanish accounts do not report medicinal uses for chocolate, the written record is not silent. Indigenous Mexica medical views of cacao/chocolate are recorded in several documents, among them the Codex Barberini, Latin 241, commonly known as the Badianus Manuscript (1552) and the Florentine Codex (1590). While both manuscripts postdate Spanish colonial contact, they were compiled by Spanish priests who obtained the information from Mexica respondents, so the views probably reflect earlier, pre-European-contact behavior.
The Badianus Manuscript, written in both Nahuatl/Aztec and Latin, is a Mexica herbal that identifies more than 100 medical conditions common to the central valley, and their treatments. The manuscript contains a striking color painting of a cacao tree among the healing plants identified in the text (fig. 2). There is also a passage describing how cacao flowers were strewn in perfumed baths to reduce the fatigue experienced by Mexica government administrators.
The Florentine Codex was compiled by the priest Bernardino de Sahagún who arrived in New Spain in 1529. While many priests associated with the early decades of Spanish colonial rule in Mexico (or New Spain) viewed local inhabitants as savages, and their customs, traditions, and literary documents as “ungodly,” Sahagún did not. He was curious about Mexica medical knowledge and sought to learn as much as he could about their social traditions and history. Sahagún’s Mexica informants reported a vast array of knowledge that he dutifully recorded and preserved for posterity. Without his labor and efforts to preserve this information, 21st-century scholars would have relatively few documents to work with and interpret when attempting to understand and reconstruct the precolonial era.
The information within the Florentine Codex is critical to understanding the early medical-related history of chocolate. The document reports that Mexica respondents warned against excessive drinking of cacao prepared from unroasted beans, but praised it if used in moderation. They reported that drinking large quantities of green cacao made consumers confused and deranged, but if used reasonably, the beverage both invigorated and refreshed. Another passage from the Florentine Codex reveals that cacao was mixed with various medicinal products and used to offset or mask the flavor of ill-tasting drugs. Sahagún’s informants also reported that a local product known as quinametli (identified as “bones of ancient people called giants”) was blended with chocolate and used to treat bloody dysentery.
Chocolate arrives in Europe
While many recent texts and websites provide readers with a precise year and a specific event whereby chocolate was first introduced to Europe, food historians always debate “firsts” and the so-called “first” arrival of chocolate in Europe is a subject of conjecture to say nothing of myth (fig. 3). Chocolate may have been introduced to Europe via the Spanish court in 1544, when Dominican friars are said to have brought Mayan nobles to meet Prince Philip. I suspect, though, that this oft-cited statement is probably more allegorical than precise. It is correct to say, however, that within a century of the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico, both culinary and medicinal uses of chocolate had spread from Mexico to Spain, France, England, and elsewhere within Western Europe (entering through Spain and Portugal) and probably North America as well (entering through the Spanish settlement at St. Augustine, Florida). Throughout Europe, chocolate was considered an “exotic” beverage – in competition with coffee and tea – and consumers readily developed their passion and desire for this dark, strangely “exciting” drink. In England chocolate houses emerged as the “rage of the day,” where wealthy, powerful Englishmen debated politics and global affairs over steaming cups of hot chocolate (fig. 4a). Indeed, the so-called “Queen’s Lane Coffee House on High Street,” Oxford, began serving both coffee and chocolate in 1650 and still serves both beverages today in the 21st century (fig. 4b).
Chocolate as food – chocolate as medicine
From the 16th through early 19th century, numerous European travel accounts and medical texts documented the presumed merits and medicinal value of chocolate. Using library holdings of the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, the British Museum, and the University of California, as well as translations of original hand-written documents located at various archives in Mexico, Spain, and elsewhere, my research team has identified more than 100 medical uses for chocolate prescribed by physicians during the past 475 years .
Presented here is a brief “taste” of these rich chocolate-related passages from selected historical monographs. On inspection, these samples reveal that chocolate products were used to treat a myriad of human disorders:
Francisco Hernández (1577) wrote that pure cacao paste prepared as a beverage treated fever and liver disease. He also mentioned that toasted, ground cacao beans mixed with resin were effective against dysentery and that chocolate beverages were commonly prescribed to thin patients in order for them to gain “flesh.”
Agustin Farfan (1592) recorded that chili peppers, rhubarb, and vanilla were used by the Mexica as purgatives and that chocolate beverages served hot doubled as powerful laxatives.
José de Acosta (1604) wrote that chili was sometimes added to chocolate beverages and that eating chocolate paste was good for stomach disorders.
Santiago de Valverde Turices (1624) concluded that chocolate drunk in great quantities was beneficial for treatment of chest ailments, but if drunk in small quantities was a satisfactory medicine for stomach disorders.
Colmenero de Ledesma (1631) reported that cacao preserved consumers’ health, made them corpulent, improved their complexions, and made their dispositions more agreeable. He wrote that drinking chocolate incited love-making, led to conception in women, and facilitated delivery. He also claimed that chocolate aided digestion and cured tuberculosis.
Thomas Gage (1648) described a medicinal chocolate prepared with black pepper used to treat “cold liver.” Gage wrote that chocolate mixed with cinnamon increased urine flow and was an effective way to treat kidney disorders.
Henry Stubbe (1662) wrote that consumers should drink chocolate beverages once or twice each day to relieve tiredness caused by strenuous business activities. He reported that ingesting cacao oil was an effective treatment for the Fire of St. Anthony (i.e., ergot poisoning). Stubbe also described chocolate-based concoctions mixed with Jamaica pepper used to treat menstrual disorders, and other chocolate preparations blended with vanilla to strengthen the heart and to promote digestion.
William Hughes (1672) reported that cough could be treated by drinking chocolate blended with cinnamon or nutmeg. He wrote that chocolate nourished the body, induced sleep, and cured the “pustules, tumors, and swellings commonly experienced by hardy sea-men who had long been kept from a diet of fresh foods,” symptoms akin to scurvy.
Sylvestre Dufour (1685) wrote that medicinal chocolate commonly contained anise-seed as an ingredient, and that such mixtures were used to treat bladder and kidney disorders. He described a type of medical chocolate blended with achiote (Bixa orellana) that produced a product of a blood-red color, used to reduce the “fever of love.”
Nicolas de Blégny (1687) reported that chocolate mixed with vanilla syrup soothed lung inflammations and lessened the “ferocity of cough.” He identified medicinal chocolates that contained as ingredients “syrup of coins,” “drops of gold tincture,” and “oil of amber” that treated indigestion and heart palpitations.
De Quélus (1718) wrote that drinking chocolate was nourishing and essential to good health. He said that drinking chocolate “repaired exhausted spirits,” preserved health, and prolonged the lives of old men. Further, he claimed that an ounce of chocolate contained as much nourishment as a pound of beef.
Antonio Lavedan (1796) claimed that chocolate was beneficial but only if drunk in the morning, and he strongly cautioned against afternoon use of this beverage. He wrote that chocolate alone – with no other food – could keep consumers robust and healthy for many years, and remarked that drinking chocolate prolonged life.
Brillat-Savarin (1825) wrote that chocolate was a “wholesome, agreeable food, nourishing, easily digested, and an antidote to the inconveniences ascribed to coffee.” He claimed that chocolate was best suited to those who exercised their brains, especially clergymen, lawyers, and travelers, and he recommended a concoction of cacao mixed with amber dust as a treatment for the ill-effects of hangover.
Auguste Saint-Arroman (1846) reported that chocolate – while suited to both the aged and weak – was dangerous if drunk by the young. He identified a recipe for medical chocolate that included iron filings, used to treat chlorosis in women.
Saint-Arroman’s monograph on chocolate is intriguing for other reasons. He provided a recipe whereby chocolate was prepared from roasted cacao, sugar, and aromatic substances, such as ginger, pimento, and cloves, and sometimes vanilla and cinnamon. He also wrote that a common form of Spanish chocolate included the bulb of the root of arachis or “earth pistachio,” better known in English as the peanut (Arachis hypogaea). Peanuts, domesticated initially in the Americas (perhaps Brazil), were taken to Europe and initiated there as a field crop. The Saint-Arroman account represents one of the earliest reports to document the blending of chocolate and peanuts, whether as medicine or as food, a blend that today in the 21st century represents a favorite combination for millions of consumers globally.
While chocolate has been prescribed in past centuries to patients suffering from “alpha to omega” (from anemia, angina, and asthma to wasting, weakness, and worms), its long history in medical treatment has been a controversial one. While 21st-century physicians would not claim that chocolate cured cancer, gout, jaundice, rheumatism, scurvy, snake bite, or syphilis (as claimed in the past), examination of the historical medical accounts reveals five consistent, reasonable, medical-related uses:
1. For emaciated patients in order to restore weight – certainly an important treatment for patients with wasting diseases such as tuberculosis.
2. To stimulate the nervous systems of feeble patients, especially those suffering from apathy, exhaustion, or lassitude – an action which we might now attribute to the theobromine and caffeine in chocolate.
3. To calm, soothe, and tranquilize patients identified as “over-stimulated,” especially those suffering from strenuous labor or “serious mental activity” – here, it is the pleasurable taste and flavor sensations, coupled with a relaxing effect, which would produce the mellow mood.
4. To improve digestion and elimination. Chocolate was said to strengthen, calm, or soothe “stagnant stomachs,” stimulate the kidneys and hasten urine flow, improve bowel function, soften stools, and even cure or reduce hemorrhoids.
5. To bind medicinal ingredients and to mask the flavors of ill-tasting drugs, uses which are reflected in the modern view that “a little bit of chocolate makes the medicine go down.”
Although not consistent through time, there are also intriguing historical accounts that suggest eating or drinking chocolate could/would have had a positive effect on patients beyond merely the placebo effect and pleasure of consuming this food. Hughes wrote in 1672 that drinking chocolate alleviated asthma spasms; Stubbe wrote in 1662 that drinking chocolate increased breast milk production; and Colmenero de Ledesma suggested in 1631 that drinking chocolate could expel kidney stones. Modern science has identified the vasodilatation and diuretic effects that follow chocolate consumption, and with chocolate’s high energy value, the concept that chocolate could be a galactagogue (milk producer) can at least be considered.
But chocolate, of course, is not a panacea for all of life’s ills. Countering the well-documented positive and potentially positive medical effects of chocolate consumption identified in historical documents, these same texts offer other claims that may be discounted: effective against ergot poisoning (claimed by Stubbe in 1662); effective in delaying the growth of white hair in men (claimed by Lavedan in 1796); effective in reducing tumors/pustules (claimed by Hughes in 1672).
Recent chocolate-related fieldwork
Throughout the centuries chocolate has been used as both a food and medicine in many regions of the world. Since 2000, our team has conducted fieldwork in selected countries of Central America and the Caribbean where we have sought information on culinary, health, and medical uses as reported by traditional populations.
Mexico. In the geographical region of the Mixtec Alta in the Central Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico, curanderos (traditional healers) informed us that chocolate beverages were prescribed to cure bronchitis. In this region curanderos use cacao beans to treat the medical condition known as espanto or susto, an illness thought to result when persons have been startled or frightened. The treatment for espanto/susto reflects the high importance played by cacao in Mixtec society and the value placed upon cacao beans. Both patient and healer return to the exact location where the fright occurred: the curandero brings quantities of tobacco, bowls of fermented beverages, herbs, and cacao beans. The healer feeds the earth by planting cacao beans as a form of payment to the forces that caused the disease. The explanation given us was that by restoring wealth to the earth (in pre-Spanish times, cacao beans served as a type of money), the evil that caused the fright would become distracted, whereupon the person suffering from espanto/susto could be treated and returned to health. Elsewhere in the El Istmo region of eastern Oaxaca, residents told us that chocolate beverages were commonly served to children at the morning meal as a type of talisman that protected children against the stings of scorpions, bees, or wasps.
The most intriguing uses of chocolate in Mexico are ancient cultural rituals blended with a veneer of Christianity. The celebration called Dia de la Muertos (Day of the Dead) lasts from October 31 through November 2. At this time chocolate plays a central role in the cultural/social life of Mexican families. During Dia de la Muertos, the living must fulfill their obligations to the deceased, a responsibility known as guelaguetza (reciprocity). Chocolate is prepared locally as balls, tablets, and as hot beverages that are exchanged among friends and relatives. Foods, beverages, and especially chocolate products are placed on ofrendas (offering tables/altars) erected at homes and local cemeteries (fig. 5). Chocolate in either solid or liquid form is offered to the memory of dead children on the night of October 31, the day specifically known as Dia de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels). Deceased adults are honored with chocolate offerings on November 1 or Todos Santos (All Saints’ Day). Families visit the cemeteries at night where they gather in a family atmosphere to think about and remember the deceased. During the evening “watch,” family members drink hot chocolate.
The Christian faithful at Oaxaca use chocolate in other religious celebrations as well. December 25 initiates the Twelve Days of Christmas, a period that extends through the New Year and ends on January 6 (Epiphany: the traditional date for the arrival of the Magi at Bethlehem). During the day and evening of January 5, homes of relatives and friends are visited and guests are served a festival food called La Rosca de Reys (The Three Kings Bread). This bread is eaten with hot chocolate, prepared using water or milk. A tiny figure of the infant Jesus is baked inside the bread. Whoever receives the doll in their slice is obligated to organize the next chocolate-related festival – February 2 or Dia de la Calendaria (Candlemas) – when tamales and hot chocolate are prepared as festive dishes.
Dominican Republic. Chocolate beverages continue to be widely used in the Dominican Republic as traditional medicine, whether to improve kidney function, reduce anemia, or to halt diarrhea. Chocolate is prescribed by healers to treat sore throat, to ease “over-exerted brains” (among persons engaged in heavy thinking), and to soothe stomach ache. Other respondents stated that chocolate beverages blended with coconut milk and onion reduced symptoms of the common cold. Still others said that chocolate beverages strengthened the lungs and energized consumers.
California, USA. Our team members have also worked among the Mixtec Indian community located at Madera, a small town in the San Joaquin Valley of California, with cultural roots in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. We were interested in the maintenance or abandonment of chocolate-related customs and traditions after immigration to the United States. Mixtec residents we interviewed reported that chocolate was consumed in three ways in Madera: (1) as Champurado, a mixture of chocolate, maize flour, and boiling water, (2) as a basic beverage prepared with water or milk, or (3) as Mole, a chocolate sauce commonly served with festive turkey dishes.
Favorite Oaxaca recipes that normally blended cacao, sugar, cinnamon, and almonds were widely desired and missed – so much so that individuals returning to Oaxaca for short-term visits were given “wish lists” to fulfill and bring back to Madera, items that included Oaxaca-style chocolate (fig. 6). American-style chocolates, widely available throughout the community, were eaten but not considered as “real” chocolate, or types widely desired by respondents.
The Mixtec we studied in California were a community in transition and individuals were undergoing various levels of acculturation. Still, interviews we conducted related a strong, sustained use of chocolate in a medicinal context. Respondents reported that regular drinking of chocolate was healthy; that chocolate blended with fresh beaten eggs combated fatigue; that chocolate mixed with a manzanilla-based herbal tea alleviated pain; and chocolate mixed with cinnamon and ruda (rue) eased stomach ache. The Mixtec living at Madera reported that eating and drinking chocolate also had two additional effects. We were told that some individuals drank chocolate to lower their high blood pressure. Alternatively, “lethargic” individuals who drank chocolate would experience elevated blood pressure and no longer feel tired. Many in the community reported that drinking chocolate eased symptoms of the common cold.
The globalization of chocolate
We have written elsewhere that – chocolate is more than a beverage, more than a confection, that chocolate is more than the sum of its interesting phytochemicals . To taste chocolate is to share a common connection through history – from the early Olmecs more than three thousand years past, to the period of frothy cacao beverages prepared at the court of King Montezuma, into the 20th- and 21st-century era of the contemporary chocolate bar. A number of books have been published recently on chocolate-related botany, economics, history, lore, and medical/nutritional properties [2–5]. These books are good places to begin. Further, those interested in chocolate history and lore should be encouraged to go online: a search with the key words “chocolate” and “cacao,” and various spelling variants, will reveal thousands of book titles and nearly 23 million websites (as of July 1, 2005). Hundreds of these sites claim to host “real” chocolate “facts” and “correct chocolate-related timelines.” Some of these are generally correct, others, however, fit more within the realm of fiction, while the majority merely copy chocolate-related dates and events from one site onto another without critical scrutiny regarding the information source and whether or not the information is correct. It is more interesting, instead, to search the web for specific chocolate-related or sociocultural aspects of chocolate: search for chocolate-related advertisements from magazines, newspapers, and signs; chocolate-related collectibles, whether boxes and tins, candy molds, posters (fig. 7), chocolate pots/cups/saucers, even chocolate-related toys. What one encounters during such searches is exposure to how chocolate fits into many aspects of cultures throughout the world, how it links peoples and cultures through time and geographical space – from Austria to Zambia, from precolonial Central and South America to the 21st century of the Common Era: chocolate has become part of the “social gloss” of millions throughout the world today.
Our chocolate-related research has revealed a consistent, global fascination with this wonderful food. Eating chocolate may alter the mind and be pleasing to consumers because of its theobromine content. But chocolate is more. Chocolate alters the mind through a myriad of pleasurable sensations as the flavor and taste sensations flood the mouth, stimulating memories of the consumer’s childhood, youth, and adult years. It is not the same with other foods: memories of broccoli, liver, and turnips hold no such places in the pantheon of great food-related experiences, but memories of chocolate allow consumers to recall wonderful days and pleasurable events. If there is a “true history of chocolate,” it will remain forever elusive, the threads too long, too tangled to ever fully unravel. The traces extend through most of the fields in the humanities (art, literature, music, poetry, theater), the social sciences (anthropology, economics, geography, history, psychology, sociology), as well as the agricultural and biological, medical, even physical sciences (too many to identify). But maybe that very mystery – tempting our research – together with the endless human inventiveness in its use, will ensure that chocolate remains one of the most intriguing foods on this planet.
I would like to thank the following colleagues and students who contributed to the research and field studies that are mentioned in this article: Dr. Martha Macri and her student Diane Barker who summarized Mayan language cacao/chocolate-related terminology; Dr. Sylvia Escarcega who provided the information on Day of the Dead and medicinal practices among the Mixtec-speaking community of Oaxaca; Rebecca Schacker who provided the fieldwork information on cacao/chocolate-related healing practices in the Dominican Republic; Dr. Jim Grieshop and Timateo Mendoze who undertook fieldwork on cacao/chocolate-related healing practices among the Mixtec-speaking community of Madera, California. This research was funded, in part, through a generous grant from Mars, Incorporated.
Professor Louis E. Grivetti received his Ph.D. in geography in 1976 from the University of California, Davis. He served on the Editorial Board of the Cambridge World History of Food Project and currently serves on the editorial boards of Ecology of Food and Nutrition, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, and Nutrition Today. Dr. Grivetti’s nutrition research focuses on human food patterns and the nutritional consequences of food-related behavior, from both historical and contemporary perspectives. His work blends nutritional science with history and culture. He currently coordinates a research team dedicated to the study of chocolate.
Louis E. Grivetti, Ph.D.
Department of Nutrition
3139 Meyer Hall
University of California, Davis
One Shields Avenue
Davis, CA 95616